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Industry Innovators

Chris Folkerts: The Man Who Revolutionized Cannabis Consumption

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Chris Folkerts
PHOTO | Grenco Science

Chris Folkerts revolutionized the concentrate market by developing a line of personal, portable vaporizers that introduced the world to digitized cannabis consumption.

His company, Grenco Science, launched their flagship product, the G Pen, in 2012.

Since then, Grenco Science has become an industry byword for quality and innovation. Their family of products has now been extended to include the Gio, Pro, Elite, and the recently debuted Nova.

We spoke with Folkerts about the company’s culture, building a lifestyle-tech brand, and being an industry innovator.

From the Analog into the Digital Era

Chris Folkerts has advocated for cannabis for more than 24 years. The Belleville, Illinois native was first introduced to the plant when he was 13 years old.

Cannabis appealed to him right away. “It was something that spoke to me. When I started to use it, it was understood as a drug, then as a medicine,” he explained, before eventually using it recreationally.

Folkerts attributes the medical cannabis movement for breaking the stigma and challenging stereotypes. But, it’s safe to say that he also played an important part in revolutionizing the industry too — by blending cutting edge technology with cannabis consumption he brought it into the modern era.

Folkerts began his career as a concert promoter, touring the country and managed hip-hop and rock bands. His career in the music industry brought him to California in 2009.

Three years later, he launched G Pen, becoming one of the first vaporizer companies to develop a vape for cannabis concentrates.

The inspiration for the device came from e-cigarettes, Folkerts explained.

The first e-cig he saw, he recalls, had cotton as a wick. “While it worked, it wasn’t effective in getting users high,” Folkerts said. He also noticed that most devices, at the time, did not come with refills. That was his “aha!” moment.

Folkerts wanted to create the vape pen because he “saw the power behind it and converted it from analog to digital, more or less.”

From there he developed the G Pen, which hit the California market in 2012. In doing so, the brand became synonymous for vape pens, much like Kleenex became a generic term for tissues. Some even credit the brand for making vape pens famous.

An Instrument for Acceptance

The company was undoubtedly instrumental in taking the stigma about off concentrates. Vapes in general, Folkerts asserts, help take away the stigma of smoking cannabis because there’s a big difference between heat combustion and lighting something with a lighter.

The G Pen introduced new technology and a new way of consuming cannabis. Grenco Science is recognized as a pioneer of the Californian concentrate market for that reason.

Having a device that’s portable, and discreet all in one system has, Folkerts said, “been very instrumental in building acceptance.”

The G Pen’s sleek designs and ease of use make it a popular choice among consumers.

“It’s functional and ergonomic,” he said, “it feels good in the hand.”

G Pen products are recognized for their superior form and function. However, the brand isn’t just focused on product innovation; but also, making vaping a more meaningful experience.

“We’ve always considered ourselves a lifestyle-tech brand,” Folkerts said.

To achieve this, Folkerts pulls on his experience in the music industry to build partnerships with musicians, athletes, and artists. G Pen brand ambassadors include Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and Berner.

Berner with the GPEN x Cookies Gio.

The company also established “the Charity Series; a collection of products tied to nonprofit organizations wherein a portion of net proceeds are donated with each purchase; and the Artist Series, an installment of collaborations with industry-leading artists and brand ambassadors.”

“We’ve done everything from a collaboration with Burton Snowboards, and the artist Phil Frost, [and having a] Coachella party,” he added, which was attended by School Boy Q, Action Bronson, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

“It’s all about creating that [interactive] component,” he added.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

The music and cannabis industries have plenty of parallels, Folkerts said. Much like putting on a concert or event, “There’s an army of people that make things happen […].”

“It’s passion, people’s livelihoods, [and it’s about the] work ethic,” he added.

The staff — most of which have been with him since founding the company seven years ago — are all “willing to roll up their sleeves and do anything that’s needed of them. There’s no ‘that’s not my job attitude’.”

He credits his team and company culture for the success of Grenco Science. His leadership style very much reflects that; “without the team, its just my ideas.”

With that success has also come challenges. Some of those hiccups include issues scaling to size, ordering, misprints, and failed partnerships, Folkerts described — but he and the Grenco Science team see those as learning opportunities.

“Having a company that’s growing too fast, and a team that’s not experienced in scaling [….] you can find yourself behind a lightning bolt,” he explained. What matters is adaptability, and the willingness to learn, he added.

“We are fortunate to surround ourselves with a team that took us from to being a label to becoming a brand.”

The company remains committed to developing cutting edge technology, said Folkerts, alluding to the introduction of new technology later this year.

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Culture

Ophelia Chong: Why We Should All Grow Cannabis at Home

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Ophelia Chong
PHOTO | Josh Fogel

In the space of four short years, Ophelia Chong has become an indomitable force in cannabis. The founder of StockPot Photography came into the cannabis industry through family illness and quickly realized there was much work to be done around changing the stigma of cannabis and its users.

A stunning amount of poise and grace adorn her razor-sharp eye and wit. These characteristics have led her through an illustrious career in design advertising and imagery for top-level clients.

She is one of those pushing for all of us to grow cannabis at home — and she leads with her actions. So when you read her words, know that it is preceded with plenty of action.  

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us, who is Ophelia Chong?

Ophelia Chong: Let’s start with the physical. I was born in Toronto, Canada. I became an American citizen in 2000 which I’m very thankful for. Considering our political climate right now, I might not have been able to get in and it would be a harder road today to becoming a citizen. I came down here and graduated back in ‘89 from the Art Center College of Design.

I went into photography to support myself and was hired by David Carson at Ray Gun. I shot for them for about three years. I followed him after he left Ray Gun and worked for about a year for his clients. Because I was in that business of shooting bands and art I was hired by many other labels as well and eventually came up on the radar of some film companies.

One in specific was Strand Releasing, and they are a niche. It was right around the time of Sex, Lies and Videotape… Sundance just started bursting out. I was involved with that because the company I was at acquired a lot of films for Sundance, Toronto Film Festival, Berlin and New York, Outfest, that were in our niche. We were always on the fringe. Plus, a lot of LBGTQ.

What was the majority of the work you were doing at this time?

I was a creative director, so marketing films, designing and we were a very small company, so everyone did a lot — but we did a lot. We either released on DVD or video and also theatrical, probably about 50 films a year. Because of that, I joined Slamdance film festival, which runs congruent with Sundance, for 10 years as their creative director. Releasing and directing their film festivals and all that. Chris Nolan had his first film with us at Slamdance.

Then let’s fast-forward to Jennifer Aniston where I got snagged from a film company to design her website, which no longer exists. And I’m not going to say the URL because if you go there, it’s all porn. Someone snagged that all of her real quick. Then from there to publishing; I designed monographs for about 10 books over four years. So, a large monograph. Then I went to magazine design and a lot of illustration as well. Book covers, for Simon & Schuster and I am featured in about 10 books with my illustration work. A lot of work by hand and letterpress. I’ve had many gallery shows, my work is at Saatchi and Saatchi in letterpress. Everything I do, I love it, it just seems to get out there.

 

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Popping seeds this weekend #growroom #DNAGenetics #PRHBTD 🙏🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱🌱🌟

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What was the catalyst for your transition into cannabis?

I discovered cannabis in 2015 so I’m a very late comer. I’m not an OG. I’m not one of those people that are out there with Dennis Peron. I’m not going lay claim to that.

I got involved in it for personal reasons. My sister is very ill, she started to use cannabis to relieve some of her issues. She is still on it she is on CBD. And that’s why I came into weed, so we can fast forward to all of this.

So, you didn’t really have interactions with cannabis younger in your life as a designer and an artist?

No, because on March 18 I just celebrated 14 years being sober. That’s sobriety from alcohol. Because of that, in those 14 years, I had to abstain from everything. Because if you are in AA, you can’t say well I can do this, but I can’t do that.

In the last five years, I had to really make the decision to be in this industry. If I’m going to be consuming this, what do I do? So, I made a plan for myself; “OK, so you can start by trying an edible. Then you can only have it at night after your work.”

I have to set up these boundaries for myself. And I still adhere to it now. I only will have one joint at night after I finish working. Usually after eight or nine and if I need to, I’ll take an edible to go to sleep. Because I know my own habits and how I operate and if I don’t control it in that way, it can get out of hand.

What is it about edibles that you like?

It’s going back into working with how your brain works. An edible is not food, but it can be considered food because you’re chewing and tasting. So, I went that way at first. It took me about six months after I was in cannabis to actually smoke a joint. Because there was an inherent fear of falling off the wagon. That was my biggest issue because I had worked so hard to stay sober, so I really needed to work a way that I can smoke and still manage my obsessive compulsiveness. Because alcohol is that. It’s about drinking so much or telling yourself you’re not an alcoholic because you don’t drink on weekdays but you do get flipped on weekends. But that still an alcoholic, it’s the mindset that you use to justify something. I needed to work my way through all that.

So now I really do enjoy smoking and ingesting an edible or a tincture. But in public, if I am driving, I will not smoke because I know the effects of driving under the influence of alcohol. With cannabis, I know how it affects me, I get very tired, basically, it helps me sleep, so I know I can’t do that when I’m driving.

I don’t need to show someone I am in the business by smoking in front of them. They need to understand my reasons why I can’t. I do believe though if you are in this industry, you do need to smoke. I’m not going to hold it against you if you’re not smoking it right there in then. I’m not going to use it as a litmus test like that. Hopefully, people don’t use that on me when I say, “Hey, I would love to, but I just can’t right now.”

PHOTO | Josh Fogel

Could you speak a little bit more to what you’ve noticed about the ability to use cannabis and have it not affect your alcoholism? What is that discovery like?

Part of alcoholism is the need to disentangle yourself from reality. I use cannabis to fall asleep. I’m not using it to leave where I am right now to a different reality, right? I’m not doing it to get that high. I’m getting high so I can fall asleep. That is the difference.

With alcohol, I was using it to just get out of my own head because of the pressure I was under. I was at the end when I stopped drinking. I was with a company that was very high pressure and also the people I worked with were alcoholics and previous cocaine addicts. I was in this environment with people who had no filters and no boundaries. Being a people pleaser, I would drink along with them and at one point I just couldn’t do it anymore. I looked at my behaviors and I realized I just had to stop.

With cannabis, when I’m around people that are high it’s different because it is a different type of behavior. As you know a drunk is way different than someone who is stoned. What I’m getting at is for my use I see it differently. I see my use with cannabis as a way to relax and fall asleep not to black out and leave reality. When I’m high, I am still in reality, I am still experiencing everything as it is, and I am able to experience it on a level that alcohol wouldn’t let me.

There must have been some trepidation the first time you use cannabis having been an alcoholic?

A little. By the time I did try I had done enough research because I was also creating Stockpot at the same time. I did a huge dive into what cannabis is, the history. I bought a lot of books. I did a lot of research online plus I did a lot of cold calling and ask people “Can you help me?”

It seems like you took your first cannabis consumption on as a design project, doing all the research before you even took one step?

I wanted to know what it was and get past the propaganda. The reason I started Stockpot was to get away from how we viewed cannabis consumers. Because my sister was a consumer, I looked at her and I thought “Man, she’s a stoner” but then again, after I thought that in my head, here I am, a person of color stereotyping my sister, who is ill and about 80 pounds and calling her something that was derogatory in my head. That is the moment I created Stockpot to change my perception of who my sister is… basically that was it. Because how can I do this to her and then I realize it’s because this is the image that I have been fed? So then going into it, if I were going to sell this, then I needed to know what it was.

I did all the research and considered my habits and dipped my toe in. Then I did the foot and then the whole body. Then my whole bucket list. Now also I have images of psilocybin. So now I’ve been microdosing mushrooms because I need to know the effects. If I’m going to sell these images I need to be able to talk about it authentically. Plus, I’m going to be growing them too.

 

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Good morning ladies #dnagenetics #joecanna

A post shared by Ophelia Chong (@opheliaswims) on

Speaking of growing, you’re vocal about people growing their own plants?

When I first started Stockpot I went to see a woman up in San Luis Obispo. I call her a white witch, she has an amazing house that almost looks like Goldilocks. Or Hansel and Gretel. But she doesn’t make kids into cookies, she makes weed into cookies. She opened up this mason jar and she said “Open up your hand,” she gave me a few seeds. “They are not feminized and what you were going to do is you are going to go home and you’re going to grow this. This is the only way you’re going to know what this is.”

That first year I grew 23 plants. Probably only had three males. I brought them all the way up to harvest, cured, trimmed. I did everything so I knew this whole friggin plant. I even would call people and say “Can you bring over your magnifying glass to see if she’s ready to harvest yet.” He would say “Ophelia, look at the resin, look at the color look at the trichomes, this is when it’s ready.”

After that I didn’t do that many, I do about ten now because that’s what I can manage. But it was growing a plant all the way from seed to smoking it that made me appreciate what it is. Also learn every part of it, because if I’m going to sell this I need to know everything about it. Convincingly right? So that’s the story of that part of where I am now to destigmatizing my sister to growing the plant plus opening up Stockpot.

How are you getting the message out?

I made three posts on Facebook. First one was if you were going to be in this industry you should be growing a plant. A plant, right? I got a lot of blowback from that. The second one was you should at least smoke it. I got some blowback from that. And the third one after getting a lot of feedback I posted well you don’t have to smoke it or grow you just have to have a really great marketing plan which was capitulation. First I poke the bear but then the whole leg goes up his ass.

It was interesting reading the comments such as “I can’t grow but I still love the plant” and “I live in an apartment and I can’t grow,” which is fine. Or “I can’t grow because I don’t want to get arrested because I have kids.” But when I see these comments I’m kind of thinking well the people who grew had all the same reasons. They have been growing since before Prop 215 and I’ll have the same reasons. But they did it anyway to get you here, to where you are now.

It was slightly ironic in that point where I can’t do this because I have these excuses yet they are trying to build a business off the people who had all the same excuses but went ahead.

One guy even asked me who is Dennis Peron and Prop 215? And he claims to have been growing since fleeing to Colorado so that his kid, who unfortunately did pass away, could get hemp oil right. He asked me who is Dennis and why are you saying LBGTQ is behind this? Then I realized we are even in worse trouble than I thought.

One of Chong’s infamous Facebook posts.

There is a serious lack of education about the history and the heritage upon which this whole thing is built.

Exactly. And probably those three posts brought out a lot of that. The fact is, if you have great marketing then you can get away with it. There are CEOs of cannabis companies who don’t smoke or have never touched a plant. I just really believe if you were going to be a fervent advocate of cannabis at least know the stages of the plant or just learn what it is.

I’m not expecting someone who wants to take pills to go and make Tylenol from scratch, that’s unreasonable. They are not scientists. But to grow something is human. That is how we feed ourselves. It’s from day one of the human race that we had to grow to eat. The fact that you can’t or you don’t want to grow something that you are involved in really speaks to me about why are you here. Because humankind grew to eat right? And to feed their animals, that they then ate as well, or they got milk from. So, it is natural for us to grow something because we have to feed ourselves.

But now we are in this consumer society where you could just go to the store and get some nice package in a nice styrofoam dish with some plastic wrapper that’s containing an animal that’s been slaughtered that you never came in contact with. It’s just a piece of them. Or a bag of carrots, we have no connection anymore to our agrarian roots.

Also, I’m really observant. I was a very shy kid growing up, so I would just sit in the back of the class and just watch everybody and everything. I learn how to be very observant and also watch body language and be that. Now just observing the people in our industry — and again, I’ve only been in it for five years — is very interesting. It is divided into certain groups. And those memes I create talk about those groups. I try not to be too mean. What I do see is the ones that come in for monetary reasons. And then the group that has been in it for at least ten years that are seeing this new group come in and making money, or at least trying to make money. And then you see the group that was 20 or 30 years ago basically working on and living on handouts. Or no one knows their name.

The group now that is making the 18 karat gold vapes get all the media play because they are shiny, they are new, they are young, they are fun. But there are people that have been in it for a long time, like Pebbles Trippet right? She’s not young, she’s not blonde, she doesn’t post the side boob on Instagram. I would say not a lot of people know who she is, but they should. She is one of the few reasons why they able to sell 18 karat gold vapes.

What really ticks me off is that they don’t have any respect for this or where it came from. Of course, I’m involved with some of those people but I’m always taken back when they don’t at least acknowledge where it came from. Especially looking at many of the comment online from people in the industry saying who is Dennis Peron and what is Prop 215? I had to basically send the guy a Wikipedia link to it and say this is the group that made the way for your CBD company. Have some respect for it. Because it didn’t begin with you. So that’s a big issue. Respecting the elders, because they are almost gone.

You are asking the cannabis world to learn how to use design thinking in their process. And the first thing you do in design thinking is you understand history and do research.

Exactly. So well put. We need design thinking in our industry. And I’m not talking about great looking packaging. I am talking about the design thinking of fundamental empathy for the customer and the product. Did you do your research? Did you do your homework? Did you get in and dig in the dirt? Did you throw down and pay tribute and understand whose shoulders you’re standing on, and then, start standing? It’s fine to stand on the shoulders of giants as long as you know and respect who those giants are.

There’s a great designer that I respect whose name is Mau. He put out a book called Massive Change. There is a great quote in there which I feel really reflects cannabis is this one. “Most of the time we live our lives within these invisible systems, blissfully unaware of the artificial life of the intensely designed infrastructures that support them.”

So, for me, this is about cannabis. These people that are coming in now are blissfully and intentionally unaware of what built it, and what supports them. That ignorance, this is what happens when the ignorance hits. When they see that it’s invisible, that’s when their businesses are going to fail.

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